Advent at our house

Wow!  It’s almost a week until Christmas!  How did that happen?  The days have literally evaporated into thin air… Every year, I have all of these grand ideas on how we are going to celebrate Advent, what activities we’ll do, things we’ll make, etc etc etc.   And then reality catches up with me, and it’s Dec 17th.  So, a brief look back at what we did, or didn’t do, for Advent this year.

Things we did, or – let’s be honest here – attempted during Advent:

Jesse Tree Ornaments: I picked up this set of color-your-own Jesse Tree ornaments awhile back.  At the time, I thought, “Oh, the kids will LOVE this!  They love coloring!”  The idea is to color an ornament for each day of advent and hang it up on the tree. It was a total bust.  I think we did 5 or 6, and the rest got pulled out of the advent calendar by Patrick, and strewn across the house.  No one seemed sad to see this activity die.  Maybe when the kids are older, perhaps?

Advent Wreath:  This is actually a tradition that we have kept going! The kids love fire, basically, and the fact that we have fire ON THE TABLE makes everything so much more fun.  Of course, now we have obligatory arguments every evening about which child will get to blow out the candles after dinner.

Miniature Nativity ornaments:  I picked up this cute set of nativity ornaments at a kitchen shop called Stock, here in Dublin. Again, the idea with this is to hang one ornament up for each day of advent.  The only problem is that I keep our Advent calendar within the kids’ reach.  Patrick has loved taking the ornaments out of the calendar, rearranging them, giving them rides on his trucks, etc.  Not one has made it to the tree so far, but they have made an appearance at the Lego nativity.

Keeping Baby Jesus in the Advent Calendar until Christmas:  We have been successful at this idea…kinda.  Baby Jesus eventually makes his way back to the Advent calendar every night, but the kids are always pulling him out again.  In addition to the Nativity ornaments, we have a larger Holy Family Nativity set from Fontanini.  I would love to add to this set, but finding them here is hard. They are unbreakable and indestructible, so I really don’t mind that the kids play with them.  They are supposed to keep Baby Jesus in the Advent Calendar until Dec 25, when they can place him in the manger.  Of course, in our house, Mary and Joseph are moved around from day to day.   In fairness, Isaac and Liesl like to pretend that Mary and Joseph are on their way to Bethlehem.  Patrick just enjoys hiding them on the radiator.

Advent in our house
No Advent Calendar is safe at our house!

Advent-themed bedtime reading.  We have been reading the 24 Christmas Stories for Little Ones.  This is our second year to read this book, and the kids really enjoyed it. I like that it is one book (less stuff to keep up with) and has stories that appeal to a wide age group.

Things we don’t do during Advent:

Elf on the Shelf.  I’m terrible at things where I have to sneak around after the kids go to bed. I barely remember the tooth fairy!  I am not particularly creative, so coming up with creative things for Elfie or Twinkle to do would just add more stress. It is a cute idea, and I know tons of families that really enjoy it, but Elf on the Shelf would be a total disaster at our house.

Unwrap a Christmas Book each day.  Again – sounds fun, but I can just see myself running around looking for wrapping paper at 7:00 am, or just putting the book in a garbage sack with a bow on it.

Family activity Advent calendar I have seen a couple of ideas for this, and they look fun.  I actually think it would be great to do something one of these January or February, which are particularly dark, cold months here.  It would be nice to break up the monotony.

Irish Christmas Fun:

Santa Train
Santa Train!

Since we are staying in Dublin for Christmas this year, we have also added some Irish Christmas activities.

We have been to see Santa and the reindeer at Powerscourt EstateAvoca, an Anthropologie-like store here in Ireland has a great Santa, plus a small petting zoo where you can see reindeer and other animals.

Last weekend, we rode on the Santa Train from Railway Preservation Society of Ireland.  Carolers, mulled wine, Guinness, and Santa – all aboard a restored steam engine train!

This weekend, the kids are in a Nativity Play for a nursing home, which should promise to be filled with chaotic hilarity.  We may also venture down to see the Gingerbread House at the Four Seasons, the Christmas Market at St. Stephen’s Green, or the celebrations at Phoenix Park, depending on our interests.

So, there it is. Advent at our house.  It’s not Pinterest-worthy, but it is loads of fun.

Are the Reasons to Stay, Reasons Enough?

Every expat, no matter how long they have lived in their host country has a “bad day”.  A “bad day” in expat speak is one of those days when you want to chunk your entire life in your host country into the trash and board the next plane back home.  Most of the time, I am very happy with our life in Ireland.  Yeah, it’s far from home, the cars are tiny, there is no Tex-Mex, and the weather is less than ideal, but I can usually look past those inconveniences and see the benefits of living here. We live in a lovely neighborhood, our kids attend great schools, work-life balance is genraly better than in the US, and most importantly, we have wonderful friends.

I think the fact that I have so few “bad days” makes it much harder when one hits me full force.  Like Saturday. I had a few errands to run at the mall near our house.  Brad and Isaac took the car to GAA practice, but that didn’t bother me.  The bus that stops at my neighborhood delivers me straight to the shopping center.  Super convenient!  Patrick, Liesl and I headed out to do some shopping.  The thing about shopping Ireland – there are no big-box stores.  No Wal-Marts, Targets or Costcos. So if you need a few random items, you probably have to visit more than one store.  In every store I entered, I encountered multiple instances of poor customer service. (The Irish are generally quite friendly, but customer-service is not one of their strong points.)  At one store, an employee followed me around, I think because she thought Liesl would break something.  When I went to check out, the cashier accused me of using a stolen credit card because it wasn’t chip-and-pin.  I was furious, but felt really stuck.  I needed the items,  I didn’t know where else I would be able to purchase them, and I was already there. I paid with another card and left, seething.

We had some extra time, so I decided to pop into Marks & Spencers (probably the store most similar to Target), to look for new dresses for Liesl.  She has hit a growth spurt, and her clothes are getting shorter by the day!  Of course, when we get there, there are many dresses to choose from, but only one in her size.  Really M&S?  Only one dress available for a 4-year old, at a large store in the middle of a metropolitan area?  Sadly, this isn’t that uncommon.  Once a store runs out of inventory, they don’t necessarily order more.  The Irish have this phrase, “It’s better to be looking at it, rather than looking for it.”  Meaning that if you see what you need, you should probably buy it right then because you never know if it will be there the next time you pass through the store.  We pick it up, plus a 3-pack of tights and head to the checkout queue. Two people cut me in line, and when I finally got to the till, the cashier rings up my items to €45.  That’s right…the equivalent of almost $60 for ONE dress and a pack of tights.  This wasn’t a dressy-dress, or a holiday dress.  Just a basic corduroy dress for casual wear.  And just then, all the frustration of the morning, and living on this tiny, cold, expensive island caught up with me.

I could have driven a nice car to Target, parked in a huge parking lot, picked up all the items I needed plus a mocha at the in-store Starbucks(!), and the entire trip probably would have cost less than the dress and tights at Marks & Spencers. I would have boarded a plane right then.

When we moved here, the opportunity outweighed the negatives.  The travel!  Experience a new culture! Live outside your comfort zone! But after awhile, it just begins to wear on you.  Ireland is the 5th most expensive country in Europe, after the perennial favorites – Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Luxemborg.  At least in the Nordic nations, your cost of living is balanced out with high social benefits like free childcare and high-quality schooling and healthcare.  It costs more to live in Dublin than almost anywhere in the US.  The labor market is quite sticky here, and childcare costs are some of the highest in the world.  The housing market is so expensive that it is unlikely we could purchase a home here for quite some time.  All of this has been wearing on me for awhile, and the experiences of the morning left me wondering, “Is it really worth it? Is it worth taking a step down in standard of living for a higher quality of life?”

My response used to be, “Of course!  Anything is better than the rat-race of the US.”  But now I am not so sure.  Will we look back on our time in Ireland as a grand (mis)adventure where we had great experiences, but didn’t accomplish much, in terms of worldly gain?  Or is it that I’m just being selfish and materialistic?

I think, whether you are an expat or not, making peace with your life’s decisions takes time and effort.  I know I probably shouldn’t compare life in Dublin with life in America.  The population bases, the economies, and the cultural perspectives are very different and we haven’t even touched on challenging subjects like tax policy!  But the fact that I know I have a choice in where I live makes those comparisons unavoidable.  Life would be so much cheaper in America, but does that make for a happier life?  In Ireland, I have many of the things that matter strongly to me. I do know that I have a  great support network here.  Right after posting the tweet, I had several friends call and text me to check in and make sure I was ok. No matter where you live in the world, friends matter.

But I still wonder:  Are the reasons to stay, reasons enough?

What to do in Dublin with Kids

Planning a trip to Dublin in the future?  At first the city does not seem to be particularly kid-friendly, but there are plenty of fun activities for the young, and young at heart!

Natural History Museum: Free, near Merrion Square

Natural History Museum Moose

This museum is affectionately called the “dead zoo”.  It has a huge collection of taxidermy animals from all over the world.  Most of the animals are in the large gallery upstairs.  Just park your stroller in the entryway (with all the other strollers) and climb the stairs to the second floor.  It also has clean bathrooms and changing tables, and since the museum is free, there is nothing stopping you from going in just to use the bathroom.

Merrion Square:

One of the five Georgian Squares in Dublin.  Great place for a picnic. It has a brand new playground, the ‘Giant’s Garden’, based on Oscar Wilde’s short story, “The Selfless Giant”.  There are also beautiful planters of flowers and plants from around Ireland all over the square.  The tulips in the late spring are AMAZING! On Sundays, there is an art show around the perimeter of the square.  On Thursdays during the summer, there is a lunchtime market.

National Archaeology Museum:  Free, on Kildare Street.

This is a great museum with lots of interesting stuff to look at.  My kids love this museum – there is a Viking boat, mummified remains of people found in bogs, and lots of interesting items from the prehistoric through medieval periods.

St. Stephen’s Green

St Stephen's Green

Another excellent example of the Dublin Georgian Squares.  It is in the centre of town, making it a convenient midday picnic stop.  The fabulous playground has spaces for little and big kids, and a weatherproof surface, so you can go there even if it recently rained.  There are ducks and swans to feed as well.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral

St Patrick’s Cathedral is an amazing church to tour.  You have to pay for admission, but it’s free for kids. Among other things, you can learn about the Irish phrase to “chance your arm”. Fun Fact: The Catholic Cathedral in Dublin is called the St. Mary’s Pro Cathedral.  “Pro”, as in, provisional.  Apparently the Catholics are still hoping the Anglicans will return St. Patrick’s to them at some point!  There is a beautiful small park next to the church with a new playground, and on the weekends, there is almost always an ice cream vendor in the park.

For families with older kids and teenagers:

In addition to the above activities, these sights are great for older kids.

Book of Kells & Trinity College

Trinity College is definitely on the “must see” list for any Dublin trip.  The Book of Kells is a wonderful exhibit.  You can take the walking tour of Trinity College, which includes your admission to the book of Kells.  Kids are free.  (You can just buy your ticket to see the book, but I think the tour is worth the extra cost.) The tour is a bunch of walking, then standing and listening.  It’s a great tour – but little kids will tire of it quickly.  Older kids will love The Old Library at the end of the Book of Kells exhibit.  It looks like it was taken straight out of a Harry Potter movie. Even if you skip the tour and the Book of Kells, the campus is still open for you to walk around if you wish.

Grafton Street

Worth a stroll.  You can walk from the corner of Trinity College to St. Stephen’s Green on Grafton Street.  There are usually plenty of street performers and musicians.  There is also a mediocre McDonalds and Burger King, in case you have tired of pub grub.

Dublinia & Christchurch Cathedral

Dublinia is an interactive museum about Viking and Medieval Ireland.   Dublinia is lot of fun for kids, especially those ages 7-12.  I recommend buying the combo ticket for Dublinia and Christchurch Cathedral, which is attached via an enclosed bridge. (See photo above!)

Guinness Storehouse Tour

This is pricey, but a great tour of what makes Guinness the iconic beer (and brand) it is today. The tour includes admission to an enclosed, rooftop bar (serving Guinness and non-alcoholic beverages) with 360-degree views of Dublin.  A great stop for older kids or teenagers.  Adults can even learn how to pour their own pint at the tap.

School in Ireland

We are now into the second week of the school term, and I thought it would be the perfect time to discuss school here in Ireland.

This is our second year in the formal school system.  The school year runs from the first of September to the end of June, with a two-month summer break.  Schools have a mid-term break around Halloween, two weeks at Christmas, a mid-term break in February, and a two week break surrounding Easter.  Isaac is in Sr. Infants which is similar to first grade in the US. The first year of school is called Jr Infants.  Isaac has the same teacher for both junior and senior infants, and will have the same set of classmates throughout primary school.

Public or Private?

Isaac attends a public, or National School, near our home.  There are also private, or “fee-paying” schools in Ireland.  However, we don’t have any private schools near us, so we opted to start in the National School system, with the thought that if we needed to make a change, we could do that later.  We have been very happy with Isaac’s school.  His teacher is wonderful, and being in the local school has afforded us the opportunity to make friends with other families in the area.  Because there are so many multinational companies in our area, Isaac’s class is very international.  There are children from France, the Philippines, the Middle East, Africa, and Eastern Europe, in addition to his Irish classmates.  Isaac is the only American in his class though.

Isaac’s school is a Catholic school.  There are public schools in Ireland affiliated with the Catholic church, the Church of Ireland (Anglican), Christian Ethos/Non-Denominational, and schools unaffiliated with any religious belief.   The students in Isaac’s class are primarily Catholic, but the school has a policy of admitting at least 30% non-Catholics, which is more reflective of the area.

Uniform, or not?
Clearly he loves having his picture taken!
Clearly he loves having his picture taken!

Nearly every school in Ireland, public or private, requires a uniform.  Isaac is required to wear his crested tracksuit (sweatpants and sweatshirt with embroidered logo), plus the accompanying polo to school every day.  Beginning next year, he will only be allowed to wear his tracksuit on PE days.  The rest of the time, he will wear navy dress pants, white button-down shirt, tie and navy sweater with school crest (“jumper”). Girls can wear pants, or a skirt or pinafore (what the US would call a jumper), with white blouse/button down shirt, and sweater. Nearly all girls I see are wearing the skirt or pinafore. Although the shoes of kids in the younger grades vary widely, in the older grades, everyone is wearing black or navy dress shoes.  If you go into the shoe stores here during the “back to school” sales, you see nothing but black, blue and brown dress shoes.

When students begin secondary school, the uniform becomes more formal, with boys required to wear a jacket and tie some days, and virtually all girls in skirts.

Typical School Day

The school day for the first two years is 8:50 – 1:30, with before and aftercare available onsite. The times vary slightly from school to school.  After Jr and Sr Infants, the school day extends to 2:30 pm.  As someone who is accustomed to the longer US school day, I was skeptical at first.  The fact that they can get all the instruction in 4.5 hours is really impressive. Isaac’s classroom is intentionally “low-tech”. Although they have computers and iPads at their disposal, the teachers prefer a much more hands-on approach. I prefer the Montessori or Waldorf teaching philosophies, so the low-tech approach is just fine with me.  Other parents chafe at it, so it’s all in personal preference.

During the day, students have two recesses: a 10-minute “walk and talk” break, and a longer 20-30 minute break after lunch. There is no playground at the school, which seems to be the norm here.  The children play soccer, or other yard games.  Most Irish schools do not have a cafeteria, or canteen. Rather, children bring their lunch every day, and eat lunch in the classroom. (I’ll write a post later about school lunches, and the interesting dynamics around that.)

Subjects

During the day, they cover all the topics you would expect: reading, mathematics (which they call “maths” here), writing, science, religion, social studies/history, music.  I love the focus on penmanship.  Isaac will start learning cursive this year.  His teacher also focuses on writing skills – she has the children writing and illustrating stories.  The parents are required to purchase the schoolbooks each year for their child.  In addition to the school books, Isaac’s school collects an “Art and Supply” fee from each child.  This fee covers all of his school supplies for the year. I love this setup, because as the parent, I do not have to go to 6 different stores looking for items off the school supply list.

Introduction to Cursive!
Introduction to Cursive!

Children in Ireland also learn the Irish language as a part of the curriculum.  In fact, if you live in Ireland you have the option of having your child(ren) educated entirely in Irish, at a Gaelscoil. As Brad and I do not know any Irish, and it is not spoken outside of Ireland, we chose not to send our kids to an Gaelscoil.  (It was also a bit out of the way from where we live.)  However, all of Isaac’s non-academic instruction, “Stand up”, “Take your seats”, “Line up at the door”, etc is conducted in Irish.  As a result, Isaac speaks a lot more Irish than we do!

*As a general note, this post just serves to share our experience, which has been very positive.  Just as in every country around the world, if you were to ask 5 different families, you would get 5 different experiences in school system. Some schools are longer, shorter, richer, poorer, single-sex, co-ed, and the list goes on.  As in life, there is no ‘average’ experience.  What other questions do you have?

x Rheagan

Coffee or Tea?

Monday Mocha
Sometimes Mondays just call for a mocha

Do you consider yourself a coffee or tea person?  I like both…a lot, but what is really interesting to me is how my tea and coffee drinking habits changed once I moved to Ireland.  Coffee in Ireland is really hit-or-miss.  For years, it was simply an afterthought compared to tea. It is not uncommon for me to visit one of my Irish friends’ homes, and be offered instant (!) coffee.  Many people don’t even have a coffee maker.  For espresso, Starbucks serves reasonably good coffee, but it isn’t a daily ritual like it is in the US.  The Starbucks near my house opens at 8:00 am.  There are great independent places for coffee in Dublin – KC Peaches, 3FE, Coffee Kiosk, Brother Hubbard, just to name a few.  As a sign of the changing attitudes towards coffee, the World Barista Championships will be held in Dublin in 2016.

Now tea…tea is a completely different experience.  Tea is served hot any time of year, and is a daily ritual for the Irish.  Most people take milk with their tea, and maybe sugar.   There are two main brands of Irish tea: Barry’s and Lyons.  These two brands account for the majority of the market share.  The Barry’s vs Lyons debate is similar to the Coke vs Pepsi, or Coke vs Dr. Pepper in the US.  Either you’re a Barry’s fan, or a Lyons fan, and never the two shall meet.  I drink Barry’s tea, but really only because a neighbor of mine brought me a box of Barry’s Tea the first day we moved into our house.  (Thanks Joanne!)  And what can I say, brand allegiances are strong, and I have bought Barry’s ever since.

 

My typical 'cuppa': a bit of milk, no sugar
My typical ‘cuppa’: a bit of milk, no sugar

There are places where you can go for “Afternoon Tea” or “High Tea” where it is served with scones and jam, tea sandwiches, and perhaps a small dessert.  It is a wonderful experience, and I recommend it to visitors all the time.  (Future blog post, perhaps?)  However, most regular Irish people just have tea as a part of their day.  They have it with breakfast, as their morning or afternoon break, or with friends.  The longer I live in Dublin, the more I gravitate towards, tea, especially when the weather is bad.  The climate in Dublin is perfect for tea, and there’s nothing quite like a “cuppa” to keep the dull, damp, and dreary weather at bay – even if just for a moment.

x Rheagan

Hello there!

After many months of writing and designing webpages for others, I finally decided to jump into the deep end.  Welcome to Sips of Coffey, where I hope to share the frustrating, the annoying and the beautiful of expat life.  I also want to write more about this wonderful city and country that we have called home for the past three years.

Three years ago this week, my husband and I, and our two young children landed in Ireland.  We moved here for his job, and the opportunity to experience life overseas.  We knew no one, had no family history in Ireland, and oh – we had just found out we were unexpectedly expecting our third child.  It has been a wild and crazy ride. Fresh off an MBA and Masters in Public Policy, I had planned to find a job in Dublin.  But between a surprise pregnancy, the most expensive childcare costs in Europe, and a work permit process that was far from transparent, life has taken a different path. But then again, I don’t know anyone whose life has turned out exactly how they planned it.  I’m passionate about food, travel (with and without kids), and really good coffee.

So whether you’re interested in the ins and outs of traveling with young children, expat life, or Ireland in general, I hope you’ll join along.

x Rheagan